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Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Sessions

Sex! Comedy! Drama! Hippy Priests! Polio! Ladies and gentlemen... The Sessions!

That this story about a man completely immobilized by polio is uplifting without ever being mawkish is miracle enough, but that it's also one of the best and funniest sex comedies to come along in a long, long time must be too good to be true. Well, it isn't. The Sessions is a genuinely wonderful film filled with wit, warmth and three seriously terrific performances.

John Hawkes stars as Mark O'Brien, the real life man on whose essay/ memoir the film is based, a 38 year old man who spends most of his days immobile in an iron lung after contracting polio at a young age. Despite being entirely dependent on assistants and living a clearly painful existence trapped in his own body, Mark becomes desperate to lose his virginity. After "striking out" with one of his pretty assistants, he decides to enlist the services of a sex surrogate, Cheryl Cohen-Green (Helen Hunt). Along the way, he befriends Father Brendan (William H. Macy), a hip, compassionate priest who actually encourages Mark on his less-than-traditional quest.   

Dramatically, The Sessions bears something of a resemblance to the spectacular French film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which was itself about an almost entirely paralyzed man finding a new lease on life, and like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly it manages the far-harder-than-it-looks trick of being life-affirming and uplifting, rather than mawkish and vomit-inducing. Indeed, while the subject matter is hardly easy going, writer/ director Ben Lewis has a very deft touch with the drama that stops it from ever falling too far into either overly manipulative sentimentality or overly overwrought miserabilism.

A large part of this has to do with Lewis' use of humour to leaven the drama. Mark may be a tragic figure but he is a very funny one whose dark, self-deprecating sense of humour turns him instantly into someone with whom you enjoy spending some time.

This then brings us to the three performances that really hold the film together. Helen Hunt has gotten most of the attention but, though she is indeed excellent, it does seem that her many "brave" nude scenes have resulted in her performance overshadowing her two co-stars, which is a real injustice to the ever-reliable William H. Macy whose sympathetic priest is pitched perfectly as broad-minded and humanistic, while still being indubitably a man of the cloth.

The best of the three though, and by a fair distance at that, is John Hawkes who is simply sensational in the clearly very tough leading role that he plays with compassion, precision, humanity and that wonderfully dark humour and, though it was certainly awards-worthy, it never, even felt awards-courting or show-offy. Not that this excuses most of the major award shows for totally overlooking him.

The Sessions has gotten a few less-than-kind reviews but they must have seen a different film to the rest of us. It's a damn fine film: perfectly pitched, wonderfully acted and expertly crafted. Don't miss it... but it's probably not a good idea to watch it with your parents or, heaven help us, your grandparents.

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